Tom Brokaw's Boom has been getting a lot of attention, so over the holidays, I read the Newsweek article on his portrait of the tumultuous Sixties.
With a focus on 1968, I couldn’t help but to reflect on all of the significant things that happened in my life that year . We got engaged during Christmas vacation of 1967 and scheduled our wedding for June. Returning to school that January as an “engaged man” truly meant that I was different!
Before the wedding, the last semester of being an undergrad was marked with all sorts of challenges. On March 19, 1968, students seized the administration building in a dispute over the right of the campus newspaper to criticize the policies of the university president. The demands soon widened and the University officially closed while the negotiations with Board members were conducted.
This was a first for any university and there was plenty of media attention focused on what would be repeated events on other campuses. Our student body president, Ewart Brown, demonstrated tremendous leadership in holding things together and preventing violence. He is now the Prime Minister of Bermuda.
After five days, we returned to class and just 10 days later, the University closed because of the riots in DC after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. When we returned in mid-April, there were serious questions about how we would make up two weeks of school. The solution was to allow students to take the grade they had at the time or take a final if desired. Heck, there was no debate in my mind and I finished college with no end of term exams!
Before the really “big events” of graduation and marriage, we coped with more violence when Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy was shot on June 5th and died on June 6th. We couldn’t help but reflect on how President Kennedy’s assassination in November of our senior year of high school changed our lives, and now another Kennedy was killed as we left college.
On June 7th, I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the Regular Army at 10 AM and my B.S. in Government at 4 PM. Noted professor John Hope Franklin, then of the University of Chicago, was our commencement speaker, and even under the threat of torture, I can’t tell you anything that he said. Years later when I asked him for forgiveness for not remembering his words of wisdom to us graduates, he simply replied with that patented twinkle in his eye, “Yes, you are just one among many!”
After packing up the next morning and driving to Durham where my wife to be lived, we had a series of pre wedding dinners and other social events. Fortunately, our after graduation celebrations still allowed all of my wedding party to show up at the right time in the right place and wearing the prescribed attire. So, on June 10th at 6:30 PM we had our ceremony in Duke Chapel.
My wife’s famous old Durham church – White Rock Baptist – had been torn down to build the Durham Freeway. Her mother was on a committee with the Chaplain of Duke and he indicated that he had seen the wedding announcement in the New York Times and wondered where the ceremony would take place. Their discussion led to him offering up the beautiful Duke Chapel. As no one could remember any African Americans ever being married there, there was plenty of local interest.
Later in June I reported for duty in the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. The first order of business was to go to Fort Benning, GA and learn how to jump out of airplanes. After learning more than I ever wanted to about the July heat and ever-present red clay of Georgia , I received my jump wings and returned to Fort Bragg. I was no longer a “leg,” that not very affectionate term airborne types call those without wings, and my five jumps from an aircraft while in flight made me part of a special fraternity.
My wife started her fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in computer science and when we toasted in 1969, all we could say was 1968 was some year! Now, we look forward in the coming months to celebrating the 40th anniversary of so many things. And believe me, time does in fact dull some of the sharp edges on some of those memories.